Richard E. Grant is a towering figure in film, and not just because he’s a great actor of considerable height. He also has a tendency to play larger-than-life characters, people with sizable egos and so much self-inflation they often float. He’s mastered this in great films like Withnail & I and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and has played with that character type to hilarious degrees in projects like How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Girls, and Loki. He injects varying degrees of melancholy or menace into these characters as well, so that none of them are quite the same. He’s a master of the craft.
His latest conjuring act is J.M. Sinclair, one of the four main characters of the tense but witty chamber drama The Lesson, which is part film noir, part dark comedy, and part literary thriller. Sinclair is a famous novelist who hasn’t published a book in several years, the perfect type of character for Grant. He and his wife, Hélène (a mysterious Julie Delpy), hire a tutor for their son, who has his eyes set on Oxford. Handsome Liam Sommer (Daryl McCormack) is immediately set apart from the posh, white, elitist estate he finds himself in, but is a huge fan of Sinclair’s work and accepts the uncomfortable, sometimes humiliating job.
A darkness plagues the Sinclair’s estate, though, and Liam gets wrapped up in a witty series of manipulations in which motives are unclear, and the truth is hidden between social niceties and secret agendas. Everyone is great in The Lesson, but Grant steals the show, as he often does. He’s like a walking spotlight, always on, squint-inducing and impossible to miss, even when surrounded by stars. Grant spoke with MovieWeb about his character, the film, and one of the major themes presented in The Lesson — does great art need to be original, or is it simply a cycle of thefts and appropriations?
Comeuppance in The Lesson
J.M. Sinclair knows his star is fading, and this pompous, intimidating talent is getting desperate to produce something good. Grant plays him as both cruel and pathetic, heartless and heartbroken. “He’s been incredibly successful and financially rewarded as a novelist, but has hit an age where his creative well is dry, and he has to resort to the worst kind of subterfuge imaginable,” explained Grant. He continued:
So there’s something very satisfying about seeing the downfall of somebody like that, and also playing that, because otherwise you’re just playing somebody who is successful all the time. Maybe that would be like being Tom Cruise on a daily basis. But where somebody has a fall from grace, that’s like Icarus flying too close to the sun, that’s what is the stuff of human drama. That’s what I was attracted to.
Delpy mentioned that she looked to film noir a bit in preparing her role and spoke with director Alice Troughton about portraying an unhappy type of housewife. Grant looked to the past in a more specific way, highlighting a film that has actually just been released by The Criterion Collection in a gorgeous new remaster, The Servant.
“When I read the script, the thing that I immediately went to rewatch was a Joseph Losey film,” said Grant, “called The Servant, a 1960s black-and-white movie where an aristocrat played by James Fox is usurped by a butler, played by Dirk Bogarde. Somebody who is so entitled and self-assured that his world is never going to be wronged — everything turns upside down. The rug is pulled from underneath his feet. That movie absolutely encapsulated that for me.”
“So I thought that was something that’s essentially the flavor of this chamber piece, is that you’ve got four characters in a hermetically sealed world, this country state in Oxfordshire. They hire a tutor to try and get their wayward teenage self into Oxford University. They pay for and invite somebody who turns out to wreak havoc on the entire [family],” added Grant. He’s right, there is a vicarious thrill in watching someone so powerful yet casually cruel potentially receive their comeuppance. He continued:
I think as an audience, certainly I can remember reading for this and willing it to happen, to have somebody who is as arrogant and entitled as he is, J.M. Sinclair, to see his unraveling is satisfying in real life. I don’t know. Is Donald Trump ever really going to take ownership of what he has done or what he’s stolen, or purported to allegedly have done? In fiction, you can have the good and the bad get their just deserts.
Art Is Theft
The Lesson is in many ways a meditation on fiction and its relationship to lies, theft, and perspective. A common refrain of Grant’s character in the film? “All great writers steal.” Does Grant actually agree?
“Maybe, slightly,” began Grant. “The wisdom is that there are only three or four plots, no matter what the story is, but it’s the variety of what people invent that is unique. In my opinion, I don’t think AI will ever be able to do that. Because I think it’s like your thumbprint. What a writer comes up with is the authentic voice of that writer.” Grant continued:
Composers, as soon as there’s a hit song, Ed Sheeran’s just been through it, immediately he’s sued; Michael Jackson went through it. Yes, of course, because there are only so many numbers of notes or core things that people use. So inevitably, you’re going to find something that is sampled or reiterated that we’ve seen somewhere before. But I think that it’s unconscious; sometimes it’s not.
Richard E. Grant’s Variations on a Theme
Grant’s response (and The Lesson itself) brings to mind what John Lennon said to Playboy in 1980: “All music is rehash. There are only a few notes. Just variations on a theme.” And yet, we need the rehash. Originality is overrated; true distinction is found in between the variations. Great art demands variance much more than originality.
“Otherwise, we would never go to a bookstore or go to a movie if it was exactly the same as what we’ve seen before,” added Grant. “And I think that sometimes with franchises, the assumption is, if you give people exactly what they’ve had before, they’re going to be dumb enough to buy the popcorn and just keep going. And I think that franchise fatigue is something that is very real that is going on.”
Art is an amorphous liquid and each person is a different vessel, and some works are beautifully shaped. The Lesson is a gorgeous glass. From Bleecker Street, The Lesson is now in theaters.